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Aurora Institute

The Shift to Competencies: A Practical Approach

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Justin Ballou

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started

Welcome Back! I hope you all thoroughly enjoyed the time that you had during the summer months. It is always good to have reflection, as they say. I hope that you, as the probable influencers in your buildings, districts, and states, have been able to focus a bit on the work that we have ahead of us!

As I read through this blog, as well as some of the great literature floating around, I thought that it may be a good idea to provide a bit of experiential hindsight for those of us transitioning from the philosophy of seat time to show-and-prove academics. Many questions emerge when I speak with students, parents, and policy makers, so I thought you might appreciate a “been-there-done-that” point of view. Hopefully it can assist you in your movement toward competency.

Below is a list of things that I have observed to be of great help in making the transition.

1. Communication

I cannot stress enough the importance of communication between the community and local district. Keep in mind that we are changing human behavior and trying to adapt a system that has been the same, for better or worse, for the past 150 years. Being clear about your intention creates the sense of transparency and allows for the stakeholders in your community to get a piece of the action. Good methods for this are parent sessions during teacher workshops and a wiki or forum run by ambitious forerunners. Both can facilitate conversation between parents and teachers and give administration valuable feedback. Early adopters are brand advocates and are a great resource to use when trying to make progress!

2. The Geico Theory Applied

Anyone that has seen the Geico commercials on TV or the web understands the motto, “So easy a caveman can do it.” Schools should use this motto and strive for simplicity when distributing information about their transition to competency. Although I do not want to insult any of our primitive ancestors, we need to keep in mind that these competencies are going out to the community through assessments, report cards, and mediation/Early Intervention systems which can sometimes be difficult to interpret. The competencies drafted and adopted need to be clear, concise, and something that students, parents, and staff can get behind. Edu-babble and complex technical lingo can turn off great people and groups who would have otherwise shown support. The more simplistic it is, the more you can facilitate communication and progress. In other words, you want your model to be “So easy a caveman can do it!”

3. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

In all honesty, many of the things that deal with the conversion to competencies are things many of us are already do. It is not a new age, pseudo-educational method with magical powers; rather, it is a method to capitalize more efficiently on what has been happening in classrooms already. This is going to be one of the greatest points you can make while getting members in your communities on board. Use this to its advantage! People are more likely to participate if they see it as a revamping  rather than a reconstruction process.


In my next blog post, I will try to illustrate what my current institution has done when drafting and writing competencies in a bit more detail. Until then, it’s time to get our recruitment hats on and start organizing a group of like-minded and motivated individuals. From experience, it doesn’t matter how good an idea is if early adopters are nowhere to be seen. Of course, if you would like to talk in a bit more detail, leave a comment or reach out via email or Twitter! I would love to help in any way possible!


About the Author

Justin Ballou is a high-school Social Studies teacher in New Hampshire. Besides teaching, he is active building/running an education startup called EduTech, several business ventures, and enjoys spending time with his beautiful wife. With competency-based systems, edtech and authentic learning as his go-to topics, you can reach him at [email protected] to ask questions or leave comments and follow him on twitter (@nhjbteach).